Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s CEO and editor-in-chief, introduces Chalkbeat Newark’s senior reporter.
In 2011, I spent a lot of late nights reporting in Newark.
I was on assignment for a national magazine to write about the immediate aftermath of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift. As it turned out, the story never ran. But even if it had, it still wouldn’t have included half of what I learned in Newark.
Seven years later, I couldn’t be more excited to launch Chalkbeat coverage in Newark. We’re committed to doing a different kind of journalism, writing not just about but also for the community whose story we’re telling.
In Newark, we’re starting out as a year-long pilot launching March 1, with hopes to continue our work longer. We accelerated this pilot with a preview story — because this moment in time is once again significant for Newark schools, and our reporter just couldn’t wait to get started.
That reporter is the brilliant and dedicated Patrick Wall, who is in the process of setting down his own roots in Newark. Here he is, in conversation with me:
You started your career focused on one thing — teaching — and not too long after that pivoted to another — journalism. What drew you to education and teaching, and what inspired you to make the switch to writing about education rather than practicing it?
As I was graduating college I joined Teach For America, the organization that provides (brief) training to people who commit to teaching in high-needs schools. I’d actually majored in film, but I was drawn to the idea of trying to help give young people some of the same opportunities that I felt I’d been afforded through education. I strongly believed (and still do) that public education is central to everything America claims to stand for — democracy, opportunity, equality — and that the condition of our schools is a measure of our commitment to those ideals.
But I soon found that believing strongly in education and being a strong educator are two very different things. First at a charter school in Gary, Indiana, then at a district school on Chicago’s South Side, I experienced firsthand the extraordinary demands put on teachers, the limited support they receive, and how they’re forced to contend with the by-products of poverty that students carry into the classroom.
Eventually I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. As I was figuring out what to do next, I briefly ran an after-school program at a public school in a wealthy suburb in my native Ohio. The contrast between what I saw there — the cutting-edge facilities, the calm and orderly atmosphere, the students and staff who seemed to have everything they needed to function at a high level — and the inner-city school where I’d recently taught was shocking to me. I decided I wanted to understand that inequity, and tell others about it, which led me to journalism.
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Your first journalism job was at DNAinfo, the late, great neighborhood news source, where you covered the South Bronx. You hadn’t ever lived in the South Bronx, and you were relatively new to New York City at that point. How did you get to know a new neighborhood with a lot of history — and where most of the residents didn’t look like you?
I tried to attend every community board meeting, precinct meeting, church festival, and school hearing that I could. I didn’t have a car, so I took the bus or walked everywhere — real “shoe-leather reporting.”
I was always aware of my identity as a white, middle-class professional in a predominantly black and Hispanic community that’s part of the country’s poorest Congressional district. That meant constantly checking my assumptions and having a lot of humility. I was an outsider, so it was incumbent upon me to learn the local context, understand what issues mattered to the local community, and spot and try to correct my own blind spots.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it was also probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a job. I got to spend time with immigrant parents who’d banded together to improve their local schools, a food-justice activist who wanted to turn a school bus into a rolling farmers market, and a local rapper who performed in a psychedelic Darth Vader mask.
After working at DNAinfo, you came to Chalkbeat, where you covered New York City schools. What’s one of the most interesting stories you covered while on the New York City school beat?
Probably the series of stories about a low-performing high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. The city had just launched a massive turnaround program that the mayor promised would transform long-struggling schools. We wanted to show what that looked like at the classroom level.
What I found were dedicated teachers and school leaders trying to move the school forward. But it sometimes felt like as they scrambled to meet an ever-growing list of demands from above, they were trying to improve everything at once but actually changing very little. All the while, their students — many of them brilliant, perceptive, and hilarious — nonetheless showed up to class tired, hungry, stressed, and overwhelmed.
The story left me daunted by the challenges facing high-poverty schools, but inspired by the people inside them.
You’re now planning to move to Newark, New Jersey, and jump onto the Newark beat. As soon as we mentioned the possibility of opening reporting in Newark, you made your passion for the city clear. What makes Newark’s education story so compelling to you?
Newark’s schools, like the city itself, have such a rich history. They’ve been subject to massive demographic changes, occasional mismanagement, and sustained efforts to improve them by civic groups and philanthropies, parents and educators, and, most recently, a hard-charging cadre of self-described reformers.
Now, the city is beginning a pivotal new chapter as it regains control of the schools after a 22-year state takeover. I’m eager to report on how the school board uses its new authority, how the charter sector continues to evolve, and how Newark’s families keep pushing for the best education possible for their children.
I couldn’t imagine a more exciting place to report on public education right now.
How can readers reach you if they want to get to know you?
I’m eager for your thoughts on stories I should write, questions I can explore, schools I should visit, and local spots I must try!